The open secret of Ireland



According to precedent, well-established if not wise, no discussion of political Ireland must end without some observations on “loyalty.” The passion of the English people for assurances on this point is in curious contrast with their own record. It is not rhetoric, but crude history, to say that the title-deeds of English freedom are in great part written in blood, and that the seal which gave validity to all the capital documents was the seal of “treason.” No other nation in the world has so clearly recognised and so stoutly insisted that, in the ritual game of loyalty, the first move is with governments. With that premised, the difference between the two countries is very simple. England has developed from within the type of government that her people want. She expresses satisfaction with the fact. This is loyalty. Ireland, on the contrary, has had forced on her from without a type of government which her people emphatically do not want. She expresses dissatisfaction with the fact. This is disloyalty. Loyalty, in brief, is the bloom on the face of freedom, just as beauty is the bloom on the face of health.

If we examine the methods by which England attained her very desirable position we are further enlightened. It is a study admirably adapted to inculcate liberty, not at all so well adapted to inculcate “loyalty.” The whole burden of English history is that, whenever these two principles came in conflict, every man in England worth his salt was disloyal even to the point of war. Whenever the old bottle was recalcitrant to the new wine of freedom it was ignominiously scrapped. A long effort has been made to keep Irish history out of our schools in the interests of “loyalty.” But it is English history that ought to be kept out, for it is full of stuff much more perilous. You teach Irish children the tale of Runnymede, covering with contempt the king of that day, and heaping praise on the barons who shook their fists under his nose. This is dangerous doctrine. It is doubly dangerous seeing that these children will soon grow up to learn that the Great Charter, which is held to justify all these tumultuous proceedings, has never even to our own day been current law in Ireland. You introduce them to the Wars of the Roses as a model of peaceful, constitutional development; to the slaying of Edward II., Richard II., and I know not how many more as object-lessons in the reverence which angry Englishmen accord to an anointed king when they really dislike him. Later centuries show them one Stuart beheaded outside his own palace, another dethroned and banished in favour of a Dutch prince. Of romantic loyalty to the person of a sovereign they find no trace or hint in the modern period. Lost causes and setting suns, whatever appeal they may have made to Ireland, do but rarely fire with their magical glimmer the raw daylight of the English political mind. As for that more facile, after-dinner attachment, in which it is charged that we do not join with sufficient fervour, it seems to us always fulsome, and often mere hyprocrisy. In the development of English ceremonial, “God Save the King!” gets to the head of the toast-list only when the king has been thoroughly saved from all the perils and temptations incidental to the possession of power. So long as he claims any shred of initiative his English subjects continue in a perpetual chafe and grumble of disloyalty; as soon as the Crown has been rasped and sand-papered down to a decorative zero their loyalty knows no bounds.

The simple and honourable truth is that all through her history England strove after national freedom, and declined to be quiet until she got it. There could not be a better statement of the methods which she employed than Mr Rudyard Kipling’s:

“Axe and torch and tumult, steel and gray-goose wing, Wrung it, inch and ell, and all, slowly from the King.”

It is, of course, a pity that the liberty thus established was better fitted for the home market than for export. But this does not affect the fact that, at the end of the process, the English people were in the saddle. But the Irish people are not in the saddle, they are under it. Indeed, the capital sin of Dublin Castle is that it is a bureaucracy which has seized upon the estate of the people. In Ireland, under its régime, the nation has had as much to say to its own public policy as a Durbar-elephant has to say to the future of India. There is just this difference in favour of the elephant: at least he has riot to pay for the embroidered palanquins, and the prodding-poles, of his riders. We are all agreed that loyalty is a duty. It is the duty of every government to be loyal to the welfare, the nobler traditions, the deep-rooted ideals, the habit of thought of its people. It is the duty of every government to be loyal to the idea of duty, and to that austere justice through which the most ancient heavens abide fresh and strong. And until these prime duties have been faithfully performed, no government need expect and none can exact “loyalty” from its subjects.

But it seems that we are compromised on other grounds. The inscription on the Parnell Memorial is trumpeted about the constituencies with equal energy by opponents wise and otherwise:

“No man has a right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has a right to say to his country, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no farther.’ We have never attempted to fix the ne plus ultra to the progress of Ireland’s nationhood, and we never shall.”

What the precise matter of offence may be one finds it difficult to discover. Mr Balfour very properly characterises as the utterance of a statesman, this passage in which Parnell declines to usurp the throne and sceptre of Providence. But Mr Smith complains that it deprives Home Rule of the note of “finality.” With the suggestion that Home Rule is not at all events the end of the world we are, of course, in warm agreement. But if Mr Smith has entered public affairs in pursuit of static formulæ for dynamic realities, if he wants things fixed and frozen and final, he has come to the wrong world to gratify such desires. And even if he were to go to the next, he would have to be very careful in choosing his destination, for all the theologians tell us that, in Heaven, personalities continue to grow and develop. In fact, if anybody wants “finality,” I am afraid that we can only recommend him to go to Hell. As for the world, in which we live, it is a world of flux. Physicists allow the earth a long road to travel before it tumbles into dissolution, and seers and prophets of various kinds foretell an equally long cycle of development for human nature, as we now know it. The fate of all our present political combinations is doubtful, and no nation has received absolute guarantees for its future. An All-Europe State with its capital at London, a Federation of the World with its capital at Dublin, a Chinese Empire with its capital at Paris – these are all possibilities. Australia may be annexed by Japan, Canada by the United States, or vice versa; South Africa may spread northwards until it absorbs the Continent, or shrink southwards until it expires on the point of the Cape. The Superman may, as I am informed, appear on the stage of history at any moment, and make pie of everything. And not one of these appalling possibilities disturbs Mr Smith in the least. But he is going to vote against justice for Ireland unless we can promise him that throughout all the æons, as yet unvouchsafed, and to the last syllable of recorded time, her political destiny is going to be in all details regulated by the Home Rule Bill of 1912. This is not an intelligent attitude.

Of course the real innuendo is that we in Ireland are burning to levy war on Great Britain, and would welcome any foreign invasion to that end. On these two points one is happy to be able to give assurances, or rather to state intentions. As for foreign invasion, we have had quite enough of it. It is easier to get invaders in than to get them out again, and we have not spent seven hundred years in recovering Ireland for ourselves in order to make a present of it to the Germans, or the Russians, or the Man in the Moon, or any other foreign power whatever. The present plan of governing Ireland in opposition to the will of her people does indeed inevitably make that country the weak spot in the defences of these islands, for such misgovernment produces discontent, and discontent is the best ally of the invader. Alter that by Home Rule, and your cause instantly becomes ours. Give the Irish nation an Irish State to defend, and the task of an invader becomes very unenviable. As for levying war on Great Britain, we have no inclination in that direction. The best thought in Ireland has always preferred civilisation to war, and we have no wealth to waste on expensive stupidities of any kind. In addition we are handicapped on sea by the smallness of our official navy which, so far as I can gather, consists of the Granuaile, a pleasure-boat owned by the Congested Districts Board. In land operations, we are still more seriously hampered by the non-existence of our army. And although, in point of population, our numerical inferiority is so trivial as one to ten, even this slight disproportion may be regarded by an Irish Parliament as a fact not unworthy of consideration.

But we must not suffer ourselves to be detained any longer among these unrealities. A Home Rule government will be loyal to the interests of its people, and actual circumstances demand, for the behoof of Great Britain and Ireland alike, an era of peace with honour, and friendship founded on justice. The magnitude of the commercial relations between the two countries is inadequately appreciated. Not merely is Great Britain our best customer, but we are her best customer. The trade of Great Britain with Ireland is larger than her trade with India, and nearly twice as large as that with Canada or Australia. And while these surprising figures are far from indicating the existence of a sound economic structure in Ireland, none the less, the industrial expansion that will follow Home Rule may be expected to alter the character rather than to diminish the value of the goods interchanged. For if the development of textile, leather, shipbuilding, and other manufactures lessens the British import under these heads into Ireland, it will increase that of coal, iron, steel, and machinery. And Ireland, without trenching on the needs of her home market, is capable of much more intensive exploitation as a food-exporting country. Economically the two nations are joined in relations that ought to be relations of mutual profit, were they not eternally poisoned by political oppression. With this virus removed, the natural balance of the facts of nature will spontaneously establish itself between the two countries.

The true desire of all the loud trumpeters of “loyalty” is, as it appears to me, of a very different order. What they really ask is that Ireland should begin her career of autonomy with a formal act of self-humiliation. She may enter the Council of Empire provided that she enters on her knees, and leaves her history outside the door as a shameful burden. This is not a demand that can be conceded, or that men make on men. The open secret of Ireland is that Ireland is a nation. In days rougher than ours, when a blind and tyrannous England sought to drown the national faith of Ireland in her own blood as in a sea, there arose among our fathers men who annulled that design. We cannot undertake to cancel the names of these men from our calendar. We are no more ashamed of them than the constitutional England of modern times is ashamed of her Langtons and De Montforts, her Sidneys and Hampdens. Our attitude in their regard goes beyond the reach of prose, and no adequate poetry comes to my mind. The Irish poets have recently been so busy compiling catalogues of crime, profanity, and mania for the Abbey Theatre that they have not had time to attend to politics; and in attempting to suggest the spirit that must inform the settlement between Ireland and England, if out of it is to spring the authentic flower of loyalty, I am reluctantly compelled to fall back on a weaker brother, not of the craft:

Bond, from the toil of hate we may not cease:
Free, we are free to be your friend.
But when you make your banquet, and we come,
Soldier with equal soldier must we sit,
Closing a battle, not forgetting it.
This mate and mother of valiant rebels dead
Must come with all her history or her head.
We keep the past for pride.
Nor war nor peace shall strike our poets dumb:
No rawest squad of all Death’s volunteers,
No simplest man who died
To tear your flag down, in the bitter years,
But shall have praise, and three times thrice again,
When, at that table, men shall drink with men.

As political poetry, this may be open to amendment; as poetic politics, it is sound, decisive, and answerable.



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